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I got better by messing up: Interview with Lucian Msamati
Lucian Msamati talks "Amadeus", diversity and Britain's worst disease, and shares his advice for aspiring actors
With 16 actors and 20 musicians (of the Southbank Sinfonia) on National Theatre’s huge Olivier stage, the production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is nothing short of a spectacle. But in its heart, it is first and foremost a story of human emotions, jealousy, hatred and love, too, as the play mythicized the deadly rivalry between Antonio Salieri and his source of envy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Lucian Msamati has performed on many of the UK’s biggest stages in the last 15 years. He famously became the first black actor to play Iago in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello and also starred in many films and TV shows including Game of Thrones (HBO), Taboo (BBC1) and Kiri (Channel 4).
Lucian has taken on the role of Salieri so flawlessly, that when this production of Amadeus was first put on at the end of 2016 my friend said to me that she’d heard Lucian was Italian and that surely Msamati is an Italian surname. Of course, that is not the case.
You grew up and were educated in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, how did you research to play an Italian composer?
"For me it begins and ends with what’s on the page. The first thing I do is try to disconnect everything, and just read the play. What is it that jumps out at me. Whether it’s emotional or political or social, whether there’s some kind of interesting historical titbit that makes me think okay, I, as Lucian, would like to know more about x, y, z. It’s not necessarily to help me with the role, but I’m just curious as to what that is so I can get a fuller picture of the whereas and wherefores. I had no desire or need or interest in studying Italy, Italian; I did modern languages at University but that was neither here nor there…
"What was interesting was looking at pictures of him, of Salieri. Just out of curiosity. There are also small autobiographical details that are fun. The big key to unlocking this piece, for me, was that this is a memory play not a history play. Don’t watch Amadeus expecting a history lesson cause you’re not gonna get one. Peter Shaffer mixed, twisted, flipped things upside down to tell a particular story, and that is what’s so interesting and exciting.
"It’s all about who am I in it, is there anything of me that I sense and see. Is there any point of… Genetic contact, if you like, with the character. The easiest is the fact that I believe every single one of us can relate to looking in awe at someone else. I mean, 'how are you doing that?'. Looking at a person who just makes you go 'wow'. The love/hate split of that."
"We're complicit in a world of make-belief, either we go on this journey or we don't"
Was Peter Shaffer involved at the beginning of production until his passing?
"He, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to be a part of our rehearsal process because sadly he passed before we began. But, he did give his personal approval of my casting as Salieri, which, for all sorts of reasons, the most obvious is me being 5’5 and built like a rugby player, cause, that’s the most important thing for the role [laughs]… There were people going, 'well, he’s not 6’5, how could he possibly play this role?'.
"I mean, jokes aside, there were certain eyebrows raised as to why my chocolatey hue would be fronting his project. The joy of it, it was never a problem for me. It was a problem for everybody else; it was never a problem for me. I pick a piece off a shelf, and I either connect with it or I don’t connect with it. If the only barrier to this limitless imagination; to this world of metaphor, creativity, storytelling; if you’re literally gonna turn around and say, 'oh well I didn’t quite buy into it because of your hair / your eyes / your colour / your genitals,' really that’s your problem. We are complicit in a world of make-believe, so either we go on the journey or we don’t. When there’s integrity and quality and commitment to the work on both sides, that’s when good things happen."
"The footballer who dreams of playing for Real Madrid isn’t sitting at home playing PlayStation"
You never went to drama school. What was your path into the industry like?
"I arrived… I guess you could say, via the festival circuit. That’s the easiest way to put it. The company that I had formed and was a part of, Over The Edge from Zimbabwe, performed in various international festivals over the course of a number of years. During a particular tour of ours in one of our shows in London, the great Maggie Lunn, who’s sadly passed on, she was a casting director at that time for the Almeida [Theatre], she saw a Sunday matinee and thought 'ah! There’s an actor who could fill a specific role that we’re looking for', and that was, sort of, my way in. In terms of ambition and desire, I had always had the ambition and desire to perform and play on the best and biggest stages in the world. So I suppose my way in was the way of 'doing'. The way of 'do it!'. Get out there, make it, do it. I am very fond of saying, cause it’s very true, I have made all of my mistakes, as a performer, in front of live, paying audiences. Every single fuck up I’ve ever had has been in front of a live audience."
Now you really have to give us an example…
"There was literally a moment when I… I dried. I couldn’t remember the lines. I literally said 'blablablablablablabla. Blablablablablablabla,' and then the line came to me [laughs]. I’ve been on stage with… When I realised, 'oh dear. About half the audience can see what is underneath my shorts,' because I’ve not put my zip up; a fellow performer had to turn to me to point, 'xyz, xyz!', all I thought was 'oh shit! Keep it cool'. You know, everything you could possibly think of… Having to improvise scenes because an actor hasn’t come on. Or standing in the wings, fuming, 'why is there silence on stage? / why is there nothing happening?', then I realised 'oh shit it’s me!'. I’ve literally been that guy. They’re countless… Costumes ripping, costumes falling apart, having serious injuries on stage; I’ve literally been in the school of hard knocks and slips [laughs].
"However, I was also blessed… I went to schools in Zimbabwe that had very active and full cultural programs. Theatre, music, art, was never far from me. It’s never far from Zimbabwe in life. If you have a passion for it, and an interest for something, you will find ways to do it. I don’t really have much time for people who come up to me and say 'what opportunities can you give me?' or, 'how do I become an actor?'. Now, perhaps it is a little harsh, but the simple truth of the matter is, if you really wanted to, you would have been knocking on doors of theatres or drama clubs. You would have been out there looking for it. You didn’t just suddenly wake up and decide, 'this is what I want to be doing so I’ll go and ask that person over there because I’ve seen them on television or on stage,' which is a very different thing from asking somebody for advice about what to do with a career. I will never spit on or crush on anybody’s ambitions or desires… I’ll use a crude and crass populist example – The footballer who dreams of playing for Real Madrid isn’t sitting at home playing PlayStation. They’re out playing football. They’re out practicing. So if that’s what you really want to do, you’d have already been on the way. My advice is: Get up and do it."
The disease of social class
What needs to be said regarding diversity on UK stages and screen?
"My particular upbringing and my particular start in life, or in art, was in a world where the majority looked like me. Unless you have been brought up in such conditions, it’s really hard to make people understand what it’s like to be the outsider… Baring in mind the benefit of our particular education system, our cultural capital in Sub Saharan Africa, is always outward looking. 'What’s out in the world'. We’re hungry to learn, we want to know more. So, in an ideal sense, you had a firm footing in knowing who you are and where you’ve come from, but at the same time you were open and generous enough to consume and learn what else is out there without necessarily having to feel like you’re compromising yourself.
"So… It annoys me that now; 15-16 years on from when I first, "cracked", people are still making a song and dance out of the colour of my skin. Out of the way that I sound. I know and I love myself through and through. You don’t put yourself up on the world’s stages if you don’t have a degree of love or respect for yourself. I love all the stories that I have been a part of. I have a deep passion for the stories that have shaped me, my own history and culture. But the whole point of us travelling the world and leaving our home is because we want to share our experiences, because these stories are for everyone. To then assume that my level of understanding or care or… Love or passion or respect is going to be reduced or compromised because of the colour of my skin, that’s just dumb. It is so incredibly dumb."
Does it ever get in your way?
"This country that we live in. Britain. I think there’s a disease that’s bigger than most others: The disease of class. It’s poisonous. It’s poisoned everything and everyone. It has made theatre, what is joyously populist culture, inaccessible and elitist. It has cut people off. In my view, it’s not an academic study, it’s merely my opinion, what is ingrained within the class structure is power. When you control a certain degree of anything, you have power. There are groups, perhaps, people, societies, that want to hold on to a certain degree of power. The likes of myself playing Salieri, playing Iago, fucks with that. Because it means that the idea of power, on a very basic level, is shattered. It means that you and me, with our beautiful brown skin, it means they have to look us in the eye and deal with us face to face, which is terrifying for some people. It’s not that they’re bad, evil or racist it’s that the system has made people believe that you are here and they are there and never the twain shall meet and as long as the status quo is maintained life will carry on.
"So in my very long-winded way [laughs] I’m saying that the only thing that stops me from engaging with a piece of work, with a book or a story or whatever, is taste, and taste has no colour. But there are lots of people who believe that their taste equals power. The only way to continue doing what we’re doing is to continue to go, 'you may not like me playing Salieri, you may not think I’m the best man for the job, but don’t ever let your taste get in the way of acknowledging quality and of supporting quality because the work we’re doing is quality'. Yes, maintaining that is tough, and the battle is always gonna be that on a certain level it’s always going to be subjective. But, there is enough goodwill, intelligence, care, enough love, robust difference of opinion, that we can always have a healthy and consistent discussion without shutting doors at people. Because the talent and the ability across the board in this country is for everybody and why shouldn’t everybody share it? Why not? What is lost? Some things will work, some things won’t work. What is it Samuel Beckett says? 'Fail again, fail better'. That’s life. We don’t get better unless we mess up. I have learnt to improve by messing up in front of live audiences over the last 23 years…"
Always check your zip…
"[laughs] Always check your zip, and if all else fails make sure you’ve got double underwear on, just in case."
Amadeus is on until 24 April at National Theatre.